Following the success of Becky Shaw, the work of American playwright Gina Gionfriddo is back on the London stage with the similarly witty Rapture, Blister, Burn; a Freaky Friday for gender roles.
From the opening moments when Arcade Fire blasts out as suburban New England welcome us into its cosy land of backyards and six packs of Bud Light under the stars, this indie offering proves so gripping that a member last night’s press night audience was unable to withhold vocalising their shock at an unexpected plot twist.
If the cast don’t deserve plaudits purely for their ability to remain straight faced and statue still during the full minute of audience hysteria that followed, they surely do for their performances as the old friends at the centre of this life-swapping tale.
Emma Fielding and Emilia Fox lead proceedings as Gwen and Catherine, college best friends reunited after Catherine returns to their quiet home town to look after her beloved mother Alice. One is a stay at home mother with a narcissistic toddler and a 13 year old teenage son moonlighting as her best friend, the other a high-flying gender politics academic with leather skinny jeans and a rock star reputation.
Envious of Catherine’s glamorous New York lifestyle full of book launches and jaunts to Italian conferences, Gwen enrols alongside her opinionated babysitter Avery as the only two students in Catherine’s summer school class debating feminism from Schafly to Friedan. As conversation and Alice’s afternoon martinis flow – it’s literally all a bit too cool for school, think Dead Poet’s Society for the 21st century – the eternal question of whether the grass really is always greener rears its ugly head and a radical solution presents itself.
Through the eyes of three generations, Gionfriddo puts gender roles under the microscope in an entertaining two hours that moves from fierce academic debate to comic relationship traumas, as Catherine inherits Gwen’s unmotivated, pot smoking, porn watching husband Don and Avery faces losing her “exclusive hook-up” – apparently the term boyfriend would be rather too “heavy” or “intense” a term for this 21-year-old – to a Mormon who isn’t “giving anything away for free”.
The huge success of Gionfriddo’s play is in her creation of nuanced characters who don’t fall into any stereotypical trappings. Yes the costumes may be cliché – Fox’s Catherine rarely removes her four inch stilettos while Gwen chooses to rock boat shoes; you couldn’t get more literal a metaphor than that – but Fox’s portrayal of the woman who has chosen a life of adventure over a family is refreshingly normal. She is warm rather than pushy, contemplative rather than sanctimonious, while Don, played brilliantly by Adam James, rather than be vilified for his failings is instead allowed to jump off the script’s pages as a fully rounded person with believable shades of dark and light.
While the established cast undoubtable impress with their engrossing performances, it is newcomer Shannon Tarbet who manages to steal scenes with her hilarious and poignant portrayal as the precocious Avery, adding a spark to Gionfriddo’s clever and absorbing piece.